Adrienne Rich on Love, Loss, Public vs. Private Happiness, and the Creative Process
By Maria Popova
After hearing a beautiful reading of the 1968 poem “Gabriel” by Adrienne Rich (May 16, 1929–March 27, 2012), I was impelled to revisit the PennSound archive at the Kelly Writers House, my alma mater, which houses an extensive collection of Rich poetry readings, conversations, and interviews. Drawn from her 2005 visit to the Kelly Writers House are several excerpts revealing a rare glimpse of Rich’s creative process and her relationship with art, love, and loss.
Her contribution to history’s finest definitions of art:
One of the great functions of art is to help us imagine what it is like to be not ourselves, what it is like to be someone or something else, what it is like to live in another skin, what it is like to live in another body, and in that sense to surpass ourselves, to go out beyond ourselves.
On love and loss as the foundation of all art:
Behind all art is an element of desire. … Love of life, of existence, love of another human being, love of human beings is in some way behind all art — even the most angry, even the darkest, even the most grief-stricken, and even the most embittered art has that element somewhere behind it. Because how could you be so despairing, so embittered, if you had not had something you loved that you lost?
On public vs. private happiness:
The question always is there, ‘What kind of a privilege is it just to be able to feel purely and simply happy?’ But we can, and in spite of so much — and in spite of so much knowledge. And, for me, there’s always this issue of private and public happiness.
On her creative process:
A poem can come out of something seen, something overheard, listening to music, an article in a newspaper, a book, a combination of all these… There’s a kind of emotional release that I then find in the act of writing the poem. It’s not, “I’m now going to sit down and write a poem about this.”
Because true art is in the doing and not the talking, here is Rich reading from her sublime and sensual Twenty-One Love Poems, found in the fantastic volume The Dream of a Common Language: Poems 1974-1977 (public library), recorded at a 1985 Cornell University event:
No one’s fated or doomed to love anyone.
The accidents happen, we’re not heroines,
they happen in our lives like car crashes,
books that change us, neighborhoods
we move into and come to love.
Tristan und Isolde is scarcely the story,
women at least should know the difference
between love and death. No poison cup,
no penance. Merely a notion that the tape-recorder
should have caught some ghost of us: that tape-recorder
not merely played but should have listened to us,
and could instruct those after us:
this we were, this is how we tried to love,
and these are the forces they had ranged against us,
and these are the forces we had ranged within us,
within us and against us, against us and within us.
For more of the poet’s abiding genius, dive into the Adrienne Rich archive.
Published December 14, 2012